TILL half-a-century ago, travellers and art students visiting Italy seem to have overlooked all but the greatest works of Luca della Robbia, passing by the minor works unobserved, and not even mentioning them in their notes. But his fame, after slumbering for ages, has now again revived to claim some of its former glory.
Whenever bas-reliefs of glazed enamel terra-cotta were brought to public notice, they nearly all went under Luca della Robbia’s name ; but if all the works assigned to him were really wrought by his hand, the fame of “having given impulse to the Renaissance,” as Mr. Bode truly says, ” would indeed be exaggerated or unjust. A great number of bas-reliefs that have passed under his name were not even executed by his nephew Andrea, or even by his great-nephews, but by inferior artists half-a-century, and some even a century, after his death.”
Recently we have entered upon a period when even works of Luca della Robbia of which there can be no doubt have been contested, too limited a number being assigned to him, especially if we consider his long and industrious career, during which, .according to Vasari, he filled Tuscany and Italy with his terra-cottas. No doubt, on account of the fragility of the material in which they were wrought, many have been broken ; others have been dispersed, owing to the fact that, like a mosaic, they are composed of .a number of pieces, frequently lost when taken down or removed.
“Genius,” as Marion Crawford justly says, ” means, before all things, great and constant creative power ; it means wealth of resource and invention ; it means quantity as well as quality.” It is not reasonable to suppose that an artist with such undoubted genius as Luca della Robbia would not have left more of himself than the productions assigned to him of late.
The authenticity of the bas-reliefs, about which disagreement has arisen, remains an open question, and the pen fight over them will doubtless continue ; but on a great number of Luca della Robbia’s works no discussion is possible, as documentary evidence proves that he was commissioned to execute them, and payments were made under his name but no signature is ever to be found on his masterpieces.
Luca della Robbia, being at the head of a firm, must have assumed the responsibility for the works that, during his lifetime, went under his name and came from his fabbrica. He had taken into partnership not only his nephew Andrea, but also the Duccio brothers, Ottaviano and Agostino. They all worked in close companionship with him, having the same studio, the same workmen, baking their productions in the same furnaces, and afterwards they had the same scholars and thus, necessarily, all their works bear the stamp and influence of the head of this family of artists. So not even with the aid of the documents are we always able, as Cavallucci and Molinier assert, to distinguish a Madonna modelled by Luca from a Madonna modelled by Andrea, as the latter was so imbued with the same graceful style. Even after 1471, when the uncle gave up active work on account of his infirmities, his influence is still visible ; and it is a difficult task at the present day to assign to each artist his own individual work.
In deciding the authorship of many bas-reliefs of Luca della Robbia, art critics have allowed themselves to be led by intuition, and the judgment of the eye has been their only guide when documents have not been forthcoming.
Even after gaining a thorough knowledge of the forms of Luca della Robbia’s works, it is still difficult to decide whether the whole of a bas-relief was wrought by him, composed as the works are of different sections and pieces. We may, perhaps, trace Luca’s hand in the figures, while the festoons and other accessories may betray the inferior talent of his scholars.